Bor­row­ing his­tory

Ed­u­ca­tion is wit­ness­ing an ap­par­ent repli­ca­tion of the ideas of the na­tion­al­ist ed­u­ca­tion move­ment of the 19th and early 20th cen­turies. But bor­rowed his­tory works only for a while, as an ex­am­i­na­tion of the ev­i­dence on that move­ment and sanskari supremaci

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MANY peo­ple who like to be­lieve that they are true blue na­tion­al­ists, Rabindranath Tagore writes in 1917, nurse the delu­sion that they are in­her­i­tors and suc­ces­sors of that po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion. Such peo­ple are in the habit of “bor­row­ing other peo­ple’s his­tory”. They are com­pelled to in­vent a tra­di­tion, Tagore said, be­cause of the fact that Eu­rope pos­sessed a his­tory of na­tion­mak­ing while many Asian coun­tries did not in the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury. When Tagore ar­gued thus, he was on a lec­ture tour in the United States and Ja­pan; his au­di­ences were in the mid­dle of a war be­tween na­tions, the First World War, and they re­garded Tagore’s mes­sage as anti­na­tion­al­ist pro­pa­ganda to de­stroy peo­ple’s morale.

One rather amus­ing as­pect of this episode was that the idealist in Tagore failed to see that the very pur­pose of or­gan­is­ing the lec­ture tour was de­feated, since the lec­tures were too un­pop­u­lar, tick­ets did not sell, and led to a huge loss. But while it was a loss to his fund-rais­ing project, the world gained a clas­sic philo­soph­i­cal tract, Na­tion­al­ism (1917).

The rea­son why we rec­ol­lect this episode to­day is that, as in Tagore’s times, we are wit­ness­ing once again trans­ac­tions in “bor­rowed his­tory”. This time again the bor­rower is in search of ances­try that will con­fer cred­i­bil­ity. A new view is on the rise that the true suc­ces­sors of the na­tion­al­ists of the 19th cen­tury are some new claimants to their man­tle.

One can in­stan­ti­ate this ten­dency with the lat­est ex­am­ples. On March 25 and 26, about 700 per­sons rep­re­sent­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions—rang­ing from gu­rukul schools to uni­ver­si­ties—as­sem­bled at a con­fer­ence near Delhi con­vened by the Pra­jna Pravah.

This body, mod­estly call­ing it­self “Gyan Sangam”, de­clared as its ob­jec­tive “de­coloni­sa­tion” of ed­u­ca­tion. The or­gan­is­ers showed some de­gree of ma­tu­rity and self-con­fi­dence in that they did not try to gain strength from par­tic­i­pants brought from the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­source De­vel­op­ment and var­i­ous de­part­ments of the gov­ern­ment. In­stead, these con­fer­ences draw sup­port from the In­dia Pol­icy Foun­da­tion, and var­i­ous “think tanks”.

What was the ide­o­log­i­cal point be­ing made in that elab­o­rate ex­er­cise and how does that re­late with lon­grange pol­icy think­ing? The point, it was de­clared, was to put for­ward an agenda for the “de­coloni­sa­tion of learn­ing”, that is, to over­come the colo­nial le­gacy of ideas, and to com­bat ag­gres­sively the mind­set that looks down dis­re­spect­fully upon In­dian cul­ture even to this day, decades af­ter at­tain­ment of po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence.

This line of think­ing can be traced back to the bat­tles fought ear­lier at sites fa­mil­iar to read­ers of the Or­gan­iser or Panch­janya. The fore­most is­sue is the medium of in­struc­tion in schools. A Ger­man ob­server, Maria Wirth, and her In­dian col­leagues have been writ­ing pro­fusely, and con­vinc­ingly at times, on the “colo­nial hang­over of English medium ed­u­ca­tion”. Wirth points to the ad­van­tage en­joyed by a small

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